How communist propaganda tricked the Chinese into a false sense of economic security

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Through Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

By the late spring of 1958 in China, collective farms were becoming the norm due to the Great Leap Forward, and several innovations had become more or less permanent in collective farms across the country. Common dining rooms were now the norm. Communist propaganda was hailed in party newspapers as a breakthrough for their communist spirit to literally “serve the people”.

Very soon the media began to promote and applaud the experiences of the Great Leap Forward. (Image: White tourbillon / Public domain)

Premature overconfidence

In some areas, rural cadres have started experimenting with scaling up existing collective farms by amalgamating up to 10 or even 20 neighboring villages to form a single integrated administrative unit, with populations of up to 10,000 or even more. 20,000 people.

The statue of Mao in a museum.
Mao calling communal farms and large-scale collectives “good” made them very popular in China. (Image: Daniel Case / Public domain)

The mass media were quick to applaud such experiments as the “first shoots of communism”. And Mao himself was delighted with the sudden surge of enthusiasm for those things he called “nascent socialist things.”

On an inspection tour of rural Henan Province in the early summer of 1958, Mao visited one of these newly merged large-scale collectives. Impressed by the obvious enthusiasm of the peasants and local cadres, Mao asked for the name of their new organization. Weixing renmin gongshe, came the answer: the “popular commune of Sputnik”.

On Mao’s return trip to Beijing, a journalist from the People’s Daily asked the president for his impression of this new Sputnik commune. Mao’s five-word answer— ‘Renmin gongshe hao!‘(People’s communes are good!) – appeared the next day as a headline on the header of the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper.

This is a transcript of the video series The fall and rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Sputnik experience

All over China, rural leaders have now rushed to emulate the Sputnik experience. Mao had said, “People’s communes are good,” and now, all of a sudden, they have started to sprout like mushrooms everywhere after a spring rain.

Suddenly, all the roads leading to Weixing were crowded with officials from all parts of the country, seeking to learn the secrets of the organization and functioning of a people’s commune. What is a popular commune? And how did it work?

Communist propaganda claims breakthroughs in productivity

Chinese workers in a factory
As expectations grew unreasonable, workers quickly became unable to compete with unrealistic numbers reported by other community efforts. (Image: Everett Collection / Shutterstock)

Along with the dramatic expansion of Chinese collective farms, extraordinary claims of unprecedented agricultural yields began to appear in the official media. In areas where people’s communes had been formed relatively early, the 1958 summer wheat harvest was said to have almost doubled from the previous year. New advances in productivity were reported almost daily as a wave of unbridled optimism spread like wildfire.

Almost immediately, claims of doubled or even tripled crop yields were reported in the party press, as rural officials across the country competed with each other to meet and exceed set standards of production per acre. With the new larger size of the popular communes, it was now possible, at least in theory, to diversify the rural economy widely.

By introducing a large-scale division of labor involving thousands of peasants, municipalities could, it was said, become fully self-sufficient, not only in food production, but also in industry, commerce, education and training. military. No longer bound by the conventional technocratic constraints of the old Soviet model, China opened up a new and original path to the future.

Learn more about impersonal popular towns.

Expectations are getting higher than ever

Perhaps the most famous example of rural economic diversification during the Great Leap is the notorious campaign to create large quantities of high-quality steel in backyard blast furnaces. Here again, the idea was to substitute a human labor force mobilized on a large scale for the scientific, technical and financial needs of the manufacture of steel in modern urban factories.

Launching the new campaign, Mao said his goal was to overtake Britain in steel production within 15 years. Across the countryside, millions of peasants were enlisted to build small terracotta and brick and mortar ovens.

Operating 24 hours a day, the ovens were heated to superheated temperatures. To keep the stoves lit, all available rural fuel supplies were consumed. Entire forests have been stripped of trees and all the charcoal available for household heating and cooking has been requisitioned.

To provide the necessary pig iron, scrap metal was collected from each village, including old farm tools, bicycle parts, pots, pans and household utensils. Everything that is metallic was introduced into the ovens. Nothing has been spared, not even the family woks.

Learn more about the systemic mismanagement of the Great Leap Forward.

Exceed expectations

Working day and night, mobilized Chinese peasants produced nearly three million tons of backyard steel in 1958, about 15 pounds of steel for every man, woman and child in rural China. The sudden surge in production represented a 30 percent increase in the country’s total steel production for 1958. A few months later, an obviously exuberant Chairman Mao revised his goal of catching up with Britain from 15 years to only three.

By mid-summer 1958, a national euphoria was evident. Fueled by extreme claims of success in the “people’s war against nature,” and amplified by an overactive Communist propaganda machine, the Chinese leadership began to believe that they had discovered a shortcut to communism – ultimate Nirvana.

By the end of 1958, the 750,000 collective farms in the country had been consolidated and merged into just 23,000 communes of inhabitants, each with an average population of 25,000. In the excitement of the moment, it escaped the notice that many (if not most) communes had been created in a hurry, without much planning or preparation.

By the end of the summer, party propagandists were proclaiming unprecedented breakthroughs in all fields of human endeavor, from steelmaking and grain production to medical science and even athletic competition. On the ground, in the provinces, however, the gap between rhetoric and reality was becoming painfully apparent.

Common questions about how Communist propaganda tricked the Chinese into a false sense of economic security

Q: How did the press react to the first collective farms in China?

The communist propaganda called the collective farms the “first shoots of communism” and made headlines with Mao’s endorsement statement on the people’s communes.

Q: What made the rural leaders rush to Weixing?

When the communist propaganda machine spoke to the audience of Weixing People’s Township and then told them about Mao calling them “good”, every rural official wanted to see what was going on and how they could emulate the model.

Q: What did the media in general claim in favor of communism?

The communist propaganda machine demanded breakthroughs in many industries like steel and grain production, but it was not limited to that. They also claimed breakthroughs in a number of other businesses, from medical sciences to athletic competitions.

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China-Soviet Union alignment: geopolitical and ideological causes
China and the Korean War


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